Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 66, Issue 3, pp 487–496 | Cite as

Colour-independent shape recognition of cryptic predators by bumblebees

Original Paper


Predators hunting for cryptic prey use search images, but how do prey search for cryptic predators? We address this question using the interaction between bumblebees and the colour-changing crab spider Misumena vatia which can camouflage itself on some flowers. In laboratory experiments, we exposed bumblebees to an array of flowers concealing robotic predators (a trapping mechanism combined with a 3D life-sized model of a crab spider or a circle). Groups of bees were trained to avoid either cryptic yellow spiders or yellow circles (equal area to the spiders) or remained predator naive. The bees were then exposed to a new patch of white flowers containing some cryptic predators (either white spiders, white circles or a mixture of both). We monitored individual foraging choices and used a 3D video tracking system to quantify the bees’ flight behaviour. The bees trained to avoid cryptic spiders, chose 40% fewer spider-harbouring flowers than expected by chance, but were indifferent to cryptic circles. They also aborted a higher proportion of landings on flowers harbouring spiders, ultimately feeding from half as many ‘dangerous’ flowers as naive bees. Previous encounters with cryptic spiders also influenced the flight behaviour of bees in the new flower patch. Experienced bees spent more time inspecting the flowers they chose to reject (both with and without concealed spiders) and scanned from side to side more in front of the flowers to facilitate predator detection. We conclude that bees disentangle shape from colour cues and thus can form a generalised search image for spider shapes, independent of colour.


Bombus terrestris Camouflage Pattern recognition Predator avoidance 



We thank Oscar Ramos Rodríguez for technical support, Syngenta Bioline Bees for providing bumblebees and Dr. Peter Skorupski for commenting on an earlier version of this manuscript. TI and LC were supported by the Natural Environment Research Council (Grant NE/D012813/1) and MYW by the Overseas Research Students Awards Scheme and the Ministry of Education and National Science Council Taiwan Studying Abroad Scholarship. The experiments comply with the current laws of the country in which they were performed.

Supplementary material

265_2011_1295_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (756 kb)
Suppl. 1 Experimental set up. Panel a shows a schematic of the flight arena housing the artificial meadow (dimensions are given in the text) and the axes used in the 3D flight path analyses (bold arrows). A close up of a ‘dangerous’ flower is given in panel b showing how the sponge coated pincers trap any bees which attempt to feed from the flower (PDF 756 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Biological and Chemical SciencesQueen Mary University of LondonLondonUK

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